Proposal would allow languishing Charlotte sites to generate income

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//November 22, 2011//

Proposal would allow languishing Charlotte sites to generate income

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//November 22, 2011//

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Charlotte Knights General Manager Dan Rajkowski has homerun-sized plans for an empty, underutilized piece of property in uptown.

The Knights lease a lot on South Mint Street from Mecklenburg County. For now, it’s just an open, grassy field with security lights scattered throughout.

Someday, Rajkowski hopes there will be a baseball park on the site, but the team must first round up financing, and lawsuits have stalled the development.

In the meantime, the lot is being used by commuters for parking during the week and on Sundays when the Carolina Panthers play at home. Community events are held there, too.

“It’s a space that utilizes parking to get some income out of it,” Rajkowski said. “It’s not substantial, but it assists (the Knights) a little bit.”

The lot is among other underutilized or vacant sites in uptown Charlotte that are in the crosshairs of Charlotte-Mecklenburg government planners who say they go against their vision of pedestrian-friendly streetscapes in uptown. Government officials say the vacant lots pose safety risks to the public.

But the officials, aware that the economy is making it difficult for projects to get off the ground inside the Interstate 277 loop, are considering a temporary rule change to allow property owners to draw income from languishing, and sometimes blighted, sites until the economy improves.

As it stands, some property owners have turned their sites into parking lots, a violation of zoning in uptown unless they’ve been grandfathered in. Under the proposal — it’s still being developed, so the details are fuzzy — vacant sites might be allowed to function as parking lots.

Vacant lots in Charlotte’s Mixed-Use Development District and the Uptown Mixed-Use Development district are the focus of the proposed text amendment, which is designed to bring the lots into compliance.

City staffers, in a Nov. 7 presentation to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, said the poorly maintained lots have become eyesores.

The Charlotte Knights property was featured in aerial photographs used during the presentation. Rajkowski said the parking lot is considered a legal use because of an agreement with the county.

Claire Lyte-Graham, a principal planner with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, said improving such vacant sites is a priority for city staffers.

“Let’s provide the private industry relaxation on certain standards. But, on the flip side, we also need something in return for providing that.”

The idea is still very much in the planning stages, and there aren’t many specifics to share yet, she said.

“Some of these lots are operating illegally and are eyesores,” she said, referring to the ones being used for parking. “That’s what we don’t want in uptown and what we’re trying to get away from. We want to provide some opportunity for there to be economic gain, but they have to do at least some minimum requirements as far as cleaning up the site a bit.”

Such improvements, which could include landscape and streetscape upgrades, would be minor, she said. At a minimum, city officials are considering requiring that lots to be cleared and graveled, she said.

“What are other streetscape improvements that can be done that are not so cost-prohibitive so that it looks better than it does now?” she said.

According to the city, a yet-to-be-determined percentage of a lot could be used for interim uses, like parking or as space for mobile food vendors to operate. Another percentage of a lot could be used for the community, such as a pocket park.

Lyte-Graham refused to say how many lots or acres in uptown are considered underutilized.

“I don’t want to give a figure and be incorrect,” she said. “We know they’re up there, but I can’t give you a set number. Just walk uptown.”

Daniel Levine, president and owner of Levine Properties in Charlotte, likes that the city is discussing what to do about vacant lots. But he would like more specifics.

“It sounds like, to me, they’re setting up a carrot-and-stick program,” he said. “The question is: What’s the stick?”

The city has turned to Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Code Studio to research how other cities are handling vacant lots. According to the study, some communities have already altered regulations to allow for temporary surface parking in places where it had been banned through zoning.

Levine said his company has 10 acres in uptown that are being used in various ways until the economy turns around and he can do something else with them. Some have buildings on them. Others are being used as parking lots.

His long-term plans for the 10 acres include a mixed-use development that might not be easy to get going in the current economy. But development of a park on the property has begun.

Overall, Levine is supportive of allowing property owners to get income from sites by converting them into parking, even if it’s just for the short term.

“I think it’s important to be able to use property for parking if you follow the rules and regulations for surface parking,” he said.

Roger Stacks, owner of Preferred Parking in Charlotte, said the proposed text amendment would be a mixed blessing for him. He has more than 50 parking lots in the Carolinas. The ones being used for parking in uptown are grandfathered in, he said.

He has a few vacant properties that don’t qualify to be parking lots under current zoning rules.

He thinks the easing of regulations would be helpful. But he said it would also allow for more competition for parking lot operators.

Lyte-Graham said the text amendment would likely be completed in the next few months. But the big question that will probably be asked during its development is whether the change will hurt the vision city leaders have for Center City.

For Lyte-Graham, who has seen vehicles being parked for Panthers games in places where she never thought they would, a policy change can’t hurt.

“This is better than nothing,” she said.

Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

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